Some of Andy Gitelson’s first memories of kindergarten are coupled with the phrase “Jew boy.”
Gitelson recalls hearing the phrase emptied from the lips of children in his classroom or yelled across the playground during recess. At the time, it felt harmless.
In middle school, Gitelson remembers pennies being thrown at his feet, to see if the “greedy Jew would drop down and pick them up.”
In college, Gitelson remembers being physically assaulted by two students as they hurled anti-semitic remarks and attempted to handcuff his hands behind his back.
Seven years ago, Gitelson moved to Eugene to become the executive director of the Oregon Hillel house. The anti-semitism he experienced growing up is still relevant in his life today through the experiences of the Jewish students he works with.
“I hear stories from Jewish fraternity members telling me about drunk college kids yelling racial and anti-semitic slurs,” Gitelson said. “And it’s not unique to our campus. Racism, sexism and anti-semitism exist on all college campuses.”
From a statistical standpoint, Eugene is a hotbed of hate crime. In 2017, Eugene, with a population of 163,310, reported a total of 72 hate and bias-related incidents. Portland, with a population of 649,408, reported 18, according to an FBI report released this past Tuesday.
And according to the FBI's annual hate crimes report, the number of hate crimes in Eugene is increasing. The number of hate and bias reports filed with the City of Eugene Human Rights and Neighborhood Involvement Department nearly tripled from 55 in 2013 to 139 in 2017.
The number jumped nearly 90 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Law enforcement officials say the numbers reflect the city’s active approach to document and address the issue of hate and bias. The city carefully catalogs reported instances of hate or bias, and even classifies certain crimes — such as vandalism — as a hate crime that other cities would classify in a different way. Eugene’s approach has caught the attention of other cities; Portland officials invited Eugene officers to trade information on how they track hate.
“In the past year, we captured so many more vandalism-related hate crimes just because the EPD changed the way they approach offensive graffiti like swastikas and homophobic messages,” said Katie Babits, a human rights and equity analyst for the city who works closely with Eugene police to investigate and document hate crimes and offer help to victims.
Combating Hate crimes at UO
UO Police Chief Matt Carmichael took his post as police chief two years ago. Carmichael says that hate crimes on campus haven’t increased, but rather the number of reports has increased because of a change in the way law enforcement responds to hate and bias-related activity.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Eugene Police Department in regards to self-reporting,” Carmichael said. “We don’t wait for community members to report vandalization. If it’s seen by our officers, it’s being reported immediately.”
In July, an Oregon Hillel Center employee found the center’s welcome sign vandalized: “Free Palestine you fucks,” was spray-painted on the sign meant to greet jewish students and faculty with safety and warmth.
In 2018, there’s only been one reported bias-fueled assault on campus. It occurred at the bus station on 11th Avenue and Kincaid Street, and a woman was later arrested for assault, harassment and interference of public transport, according to UO Police Department spokesperson Kelly McIver.
The incident began on May 5, after a women, 38, boarded the bus and began making homophobic remarks to another women, before assaulting her and another male passenger. The assailant was apprehended the following morning in Springfield.
According to UO’s yearly Clery report, hate crimes on campus have been marred with incidents of both assault and intimidation in the past three years. Out of the eight reported hate crimes on campus between 2015 and 2017, six were either assault or intimidation based on religious or racial bias.
Carmichael and the UOPD quell hate on campus by responding to incidents that aren’t necessarily crimes, such as white nationalist leaflets being strewn about campus in 2017. Carmichael says that keeping an open dialogue between impacted groups and organizations on campus helps build a sense of community.
“We take the time to talk to victims to make sure their needs are being met. Nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable on campus or anywhere,” Carmichael said.
One of these groups is UO’s Student Muslim Association. Mohammed Zaidan, vice president of MSA, has spent the past two years attempting to ease the fear many Muslim students have living in America.
“For a lot of our students, it’s uncomfortable living here,” Zaidan said. “Some of them don’t even feel safe wearing a headscarf anymore, because of the fact that she’ll be targeted and racially profiled.”
Since 2017, Babits, the human rights and equity analyst, has worked directly with the EPD, cataloging reports to create a database that collects and tracks hate crimes for a yearly report.
The information is categorized by impacted group, type of crime and outcome of incident. Babits’ office also collects data on incidents that might not be considered hate crimes but is nonetheless hateful behavior.
“We try to give people who are experiencing hate and bias activity a voice, even though sometimes nothing can be legally done,” Babits said. “Our office connects people with resources and in some cases helps them navigate governmental processes, such as filing formal complaints with the EPD.”
When reporting a hate crime, Babits says that people will often come straight to her office as opposed to the police. A big part of her job is deciding what exactly constitutes a hate crime and then figuring out the correct response.
“If somebody were to berate someone on the sidewalk and yell racial slurs or anti-semitic slurs, or tell them to go back to their country, those aren’t actually crimes unless they threaten harm,” Babits said. “It can be really disappointing when there’s no legal action for these kinds of acts.”
According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, Oregon and Washington became the first states to pass hate crime legislation, in 1981. Since then, 49 states have adopted similar hate crime statutes. Yet, states vary in regards to which groups are protected under hate crime laws, as well as the range of crimes covered.
Vandalism, like the spray-painted hate speech reported in July at the Hillel house, makes up a large majority of the reported hate crimes in Eugene. In the 2017 Human Rights Commission Hate and Bias Report, vandalism was the most-reported form of hate crime in Lane County, with a majority being race or religion motivated.
According to the minutes from the most recent quarterly Human Rights Commission meeting, there were 13 hate or bias crimes reported by the EPD between July 1 and Oct. 10. Of the 13, only three were vandalism, with assault being nearly half of the reports.
The report mentions an incident in which a man left a threatening note, attaching bullets to the envelope and leaving it at the St. Mary’s church on 13th Avenue. The next day, he discharged pepper spray into the building through the mail slot. He was arrested and charged with second-degree intimidation.
Worse before it gets better
Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education Research Center at UO, works closely with immigrant organizations in Eugene, including the Integration Network for Immigrants and the LatinX Alliance. Within the past couple years, Bussel said he noticed a change within the immigrant community.
“People that I know within these organizations have been accosted in various ways essentially because of who they are or what they look like,” Bussel said. “They’re made to feel uncomfortable and some feel really threatened.”
Nationally, according to the FBI yearly report on hate crimes released on Nov. 13, hate crimes have gone up 17 percent from 2016 to 2017. The conversation reports that this is the largest increase since 2001, when the 9/11 attacks fueled a litany of attacks on Americans of Arab and Muslim descent.
Overall, these numbers only include crimes recorded before 2018. Not included is the rash of hate-related crimes that have happened in the U.S. within the past few months. One incident, the October massacre at a Pittsburgh Synagogue, is being called one of the deadliest attacks against America’s Jewish community, with 11 total victims.
Bussel, who’s a long-time member of Temple Beth Israel, admitted that he feared it may get worse before it gets better but was gratified at the solidarity shown at Eugene temple following the Pittsburgh massacre.
“There's been a lot of good expressions of solidarity,” Bussel said. “When these incidents happen, I think it’s important that people stand up on behalf of other people and continue to send a message that these actions are not acceptable in our community.”
While EPD continues to lead by example with mandatory self-reporting among their officers, as well as increased cooperation with city agencies, the high number of hate crimes reported in Eugene sheds light on the rest of the state’s poor methods of documenting hate and bias activity.
According to a Department of Justice hate crime report released in 2017, as reported by CNN, 54 percent of hate crimes went unreported between 2004 and 2015. This may be why Eugene, whose population is only a fraction Portland’s, reported more than double the amount of hate crimes.
As the number of hate crimes continues to rise in Eugene, as well as the rest of the country, so does community awareness. The documentation to any hate or bias-related incident, crime or not, contributes to an environment that ceases to allow hateful rhetoric on campus.
As a leader in the Jewish student community, Andy Gitelson believes that going out of your way to report hate and bias activity is a big step towards real change in our community.
“That’s the biggest step our students can take,” Gitelson said. “Speak up if you hear or see something hateful. Engage with other people for the sake of learning about yourself and expanding your knowledge base. So that when you hear these messages popping up, you reject them.”